1491 - New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus by Charles C. Mann explores what was known as of 2005 or so about the inhabitants of the Americas before the arrival of Columbus. The book shows that just about everything I was taught about the Indians wasn't so much wrong as misleading.
The biggest surprise for me was the
sheer size of the population. The exact numbers are not known but it
is within the realm of possibility that in 1491 the majority (51% or
so) of the human population on Earth lived in the Americas. The
Americas were packed to the brim with people. This reality was
actually recorded in the journals of the early European settlers to
America but got discounted because later settlers (for reasons
described below) didn't see the profusion of humanity that the early
The next big surprise for me was the vast terraforming that the Indians engaged in. The Indians massively altered the ecology of the Americas. They managed their environments using everything from gigantic terracing and irrigation projects to make otherwise inhabitable lands habitable to the use of fire and forest management to remake the Americas into a more hospitable land. Their work in turning the Amazon jungle into fertile farm land was particularly impressive to me. Much of the 'pristine' forests that people fight over today in the Americas are in reality artificial environments created by the Indians that were left to go wild once the Indians were gone. What was also amazing about Indian farming technology was how sophisticated and successful it was. From the creation of maize (corn) through sophisticated hybridization (far beyond anything seen anywhere else in the world at the time) to land management strategies that created completely sustainable land use while producing enormous amounts of food, the Indians were the masters of the farming technology of their time. The early Europeans noted this disparity and were openly jealous at how healthy the Indians were compared to themselves.
This is without even going into their metal working and textile technologies. While Europeans largely focused on using metal for war and tools the Indians used it for decoration and creating ductile, flexible, glossy metals beyond anything seen in Europe (and no, this didn't make the Indians a bunch of peace worshipers, it turns out that obsidian and stone are perfectly fine tools for killing mass numbers of people). Their textiles led to everything from cotton armor that was almost as strong as steel but much lighter to tension bridges made of cloths and fibers used to cross large gorges. Or, perhaps most importantly of all to early Europeans, shoes that didn't torture your feet. The Indian cultures also had extremely sophisticated mathematics and astronomy with Indians having understood zero long before Europe did. The Indian cultures also had a profusion of writing systems as well as books using both deer skin (the equivalent of European Vellum) as well as thin wood. Most of the written material however was consciously destroyed by the Europeans as it was felt to somehow be inherently evil. So very little survives to this day.
This all having been said Indian culture also had some interesting blind spots. Besides not using metal primarily to kill people, they also didn't have the gun nor the wheel. We know they knew about the wheel because we have found Indian toys that used it. But no evidence has been found for the widespread use of the wheel even thought the Indians created sophisticated road systems that appear to be larger than what even the Roman empire at its height managed to build. And as anyone who has been to any of the ruins can tell you, the Indians had sophisticated architectural techniques that the Europeans were in open awe about.
While there is much argument about exactly how many Indians lived in the Americas what seems clear to everyone is where the Indians had gone, they were killed, in massive numbers, largely by disease. The arrival of Europeans introduced a raft of diseases that the Indians had no immunity against. The exact level of slaughter this induced is argued about but the slaughter seems to have carried off somewhere between 80% to 95% of the pre-Columbus Indian population. European diseases, once introduced into America, spread much faster than the Europeans themselves did. So most of the Indians killed by those diseases never actually met a European.
So the traditional image of the Americas as open
land ready for settlement with a sparse Indian population (that
Europeans nevertheless continued to slaughter, torture and rape) was
true to a point but the truth was the result of a near extinction
event that destroyed what were incredibly sophisticated and
The reason so much of this wasn't known before is because no one really looked. The idea of the Indians as stone age primitives served a lot of people's agendas so no one really went out and looked at the enormous marks the Indians left behind. Over the last forty years or so people have started to look and the historical record is there to be seen. Now that we understand what we are seeing we can see the marks of the Indians all throughout the Americas and can start to appreciate at some base level what has been lost.
To be clear this is not some paean to a lost idyll. The Indians were humans like us all with all the flaws that brings in. Although Indians were, on average, it seems healthier than the equivalent Europeans, Indian societies had plenty of war, death and domination. Although Indian societies do appear much more egalitarian than their European equivalents of the time there was no question who ran things and it wasn't the women. So this isn't really about Indians being better or worse than the Europeans. It's about knowledge.